The longtime CEO and president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation announced his plans to retire next June, capping a more than 40-year career of forging bonds with other faiths, educating people about the Holocaust, giving to those in need and building a South Florida Jewish community whose roots are worldwide.
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” Jacob Solomon said Tuesday. “To do what I do professionally, in a way that marries my personal passion for my Jewish identity, for the Jewish people, for Israel, for our Miami-Dade community, what a blessing.”
Solomon, 69, joined the federation in 1981 as a planning associate and rose to top executive in 1992. He’s one of the longest-serving CEOs in the North American Jewish Federation system, according to the Miami federation.
During his tenure as CEO, Solomon guided the nonprofit to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to Jewish education programs (such as the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach), Israeli scholarships and social services that include food insecurity programs and special needs initiatives.
Richard D. Fain, board chair of the Royal Caribbean Group, will lead the search for Solomon’s successor. Fain will head a national search through a volunteer committee responsible for identifying and recommending the federation’s next president.
‘A special friend’ to all
“This is an emotional time for all of us,” Fain said. “Jacob has been such an important leader, not only in leading an important organization, but he has such a good heart that he motivates all of us to do more for our community. I think he truly is irreplaceable.”
While the federation’s mission is focused on Jewish community-building and philanthropy, the nonprofit has raised money for many communities during times of tragedy — from the war in Ukraine to the Surfside condo collapse to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As Jews, we’re obligated to respond when need emerges. And that call to response is not just when the tragedy affects our own community, but anywhere in the world,” Solomon said. “We can’t always fix everything, but we can always try.”
The federation helps fund 170 programs, grants and services in Miami-Dade, Israel and 70 other countries worldwide aimed at caring for those in need and strengthening Jewish life. Solomon is known for forging relationships in and outside the Jewish community.
“Jacob is a special friend to the entire community,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. “He was kind, competent, specially to the poor, the sick, the cripple, the elderly, and the immigrant. He leaves a large footprint of dedication and service. God bless him.”
Solomon leads with an open mind, embracing Miami’s diverse Jewish community while understanding that Jewish identity looks different for everyone, said Rabbi Mario Rojzman, president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami and senior rabbi of Beth Torah in northeast Miami-Dade.
“He’s an absolute master in the skill of making you feel that you are the most important person in that moment for him,” said Rojzman, who was born in Argentina. “And I think with thousands of people in this community, that’s why he’s so beloved.”
Norman Braman, president of Braman Automotive, one of Florida’s largest car dealerships, said Solomon has built a cohesive community that works together for the greater good.
“He’s a marvelous executive and has built a first quality team around him,” said Braman, founding chair of the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach. “He’s nationally recognized in the United States, respected by all. He’s a model for so many organizations and that’s a very special accomplishment. His reputation goes far beyond the community.”
Under Solomon’s leadership, the federation has navigated through historic crises including the release of a million Jews from the former Soviet Union, the rescue of tens of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia and most recently, the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside on June 24, 2021, which killed 98 people.
“He is a man with a great soul. And one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever known,” said longtime friend David Lawrence Jr., a former Miami Herald publisher and founder of the Children’s Movement of Florida. “I think he’s a huge blessing to this community, and he is a huge blessing to me.”
Miami’s diverse Jewish community
Solomon has seen Miami’s Jewish community grow and change throughout his decades at the federation. He points to the community’s diversity as a point of strength, noting that Miami has the highest percentage of foreign-born Jewish adults in the United States, according the the last federation population study.
“We’re diverse in so many different ways. And that requires kind of retooling,” Solomon said. “One of the abiding principles of the federation is to allow for space for people with differing opinions to come together ... I often say that federation is the table around which we agree to disagree together. In some ways, that requires a lot of hard work. Diversity doesn’t happen by itself. It requires a real self-conscious discipline.”
With a strong, supportive staff behind him, Solomon believes the federation will continue its mission without a hitch. Looking back on his 43-year career, Solomon is proud of what he’s accomplished, but knows that there’s more work to be done.
“This is a long haul; this is a marathon. I hope that we’ll continue to earn the support of our people in the community and I hope we’ll continue to be blessed by the Almighty in our efforts,” Solomon said.
“All we can do is the best we can.”
This report was created with philanthropic support from Christian, Muslim and Jewish funders in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all work.